COVID-19 & (de)confinement : opinion

« We also have the right to be affected and to be scared »

What about resilience?


The concept of resilience is often used to explain the ability of individuals to cope with and overcome challenging situations. But isn't this concept associated with a performance imperative, meaning that people need to be able to adapt at their own pace, while also acknowledging their weaknesses?

An interview with Jérôme Englebert, doctor in psychology, lecturer at the University of Liège (ULiège) and visiting professor at the University of Lausanne. Jérôme Englebert is also a psychologist, psychotherapist, and clinical psychologist at the Établissement de Défense Sociale de Paifve.

 

We have adapted to confinement, now we have to consider adapting to deconfinement, under particular conditions. Do these processes engage our capacity for resilience?

Resilience is a very fashionable concept, both in psychology and in everyday language (for example, President Macron recently named the operation using the army to manage the current crisis in France "Operation Resilience"). However, I think it is important to use this term with moderation and nuance. It is interesting to note, as Nicolas Marquis, a sociologist at the University of Saint-Louis Brussels, shows, that the origin of this concept is not insignificant: it seems to come from the United States, following the 1929 stock market crash, and was used to characterise the human temperament to "face" and recover from a painful or traumatic ordeal.

Of course, it is consistent to tell people that when faced with a problem it is probably more appropriate to face it and negotiate it, rather than to deny it and ignore it (this is almost a truism). Nevertheless, highlighting this skill of resilience in the individual is based on an ideology of performance (evoked by how frequently the terms “empowerment” and “survivor” are used in psychology and medicine today) and this should be questioned in the field of psychology, which recognises inter-individual variations. I think it is therefore important to stress that we can be resilient and capable of coping, just as we can also take our time, recognise our weaknesses, and have the right to be affected and to be afraid. There are also people who feel neither resilient nor affected, just as they do not feel that they are facing difficulty or trauma.

Finally, from a psychological point of view, deconfinement is an empty concept that means totally different realities and, for those affected, different kinds of suffering: a restaurant owner or a self-employed person in financial uncertainty will not face the same psychological and existential difficulties as a student having to take exams remotely in potentially difficult conditions. Equally, a person living with their family in a small apartment with little (or no) privacy will not have the same experience as an exhausted supermarket cashier or a nurse confronted with the death and suffering of their patients more than ever before.

Beyond the desire to return to "our lives before", can this crisis also be perceived positively by people?

On this point, I think two things can be said. Firstly, it seems to me that many people want, more than a return to the previous state. Indeed, they want the advent of changes on a societal level. Of course, no one wants to dwell on the time of the masks, the absence of physical contact, the disappearance of handshakes and hugs. On the other hand, the excesses of the economic world, our ecological impact - a whole series of things seem to be open to discussion today that were previously unthinkable. I am struck by the extent to which these citizen discourses are present in daily conversations, as well as in the telephone exchanges I have with some of my patients. They verbalise that if this situation can be used to change things, these deprivations will not have been for nothing.

But more fundamentally, what I think should be remembered is that one of the characteristics of humans is to never go back. The return to homeostasis is a psychological myth. One never bathes twice in the same river, as Heraclitus rightly pointed out. Rather than trying to find what is normal for them, people tend to constantly create new standards. Adaptation does not mean passively adhering to the environment. Rather, it is a two-way street: the individual adapts to the norms, but, just as much, they create and transcend the constraints of their environment (this is the definition of health according to the philosopher Canguilhem). Humans always colour the world according to their own subjectivity and create their own normative reality. Despite the constraints imposed on them, in this case the deconfinement measures, people continue to create a balance between imposed norms and the creation of subjective norms. If this is what is meant by resilience, then it seems fair to me to refer to it.

Jerome-Englebert, Jérôme Englebert, is a doctor in psychology, lecturer at the University of Liège and visiting professor at the University of Lausanne. At ULiège, he works in the the ARCH (Adaptation, Resilience and Change) Research Unit. Jérôme Englebert is also a psychologist, psychotherapist, and clinical psychologist at the Établissement de Défense Sociale de Paifve.
©Photo : Pixabay

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